Anthropologists, when noting a time period associated with the first human inhabitation of the coast of West Africa, point to fossil kitchen shell middens dating back 170,000 years; dense academic tomes like Traditional Fishing Methods of Africa chronicle shoreline techniques in use over 10,000 years ago. So what? So, consider that 20 years ago I accompanied veteran surf explorers Randy Rarick and John Callahan to a tiny island off the coast of West Africa called Sao Tome. There we encountered a uniquely-indigenous surfing culture: village kids who rode their local waves both on hand-carved bellyboards called tambuas, and on short goffe wood rafts, made specifically for riding surf-ski style.
We were the first contemporary surfers these villagers had ever seen. On a subsequent visit, while filming the 2010 documentary The Lost Wave: An African Surf Story, we interviewed the father of one of these local surfers, who explained that he had passed on this wave-riding tradition to his kids, having been taught by his father, who had, in turn, been taught by his. This anecdotal evidence takes Sao Tome surf culture back to at least the 1930s. Taking into account the development of modern surf culture during that period there is no conceivable way that the sport was introduced to this remote island by 20th-century outsiders, but most probably had been imported millennia ago by the first wave of slaves from coastal Angola, brought to Sao Tome by Portuguese plantation overseers in the 15th century, and then passed down, generation after generation. Which is to say that, with the 170,000-year-old shell midden in mind, what is conceivable is that surfing developed along the coast of West Africa centuries before Polynesia, and eventually Hawaii, was even settled; long before pre-Columbian fishermen first dipped their reed boats in the waves off the coast of what is now Peru.